Tin Can Treason by Terry Nardone

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Terry Nardone’s Tin Can Treason: Recollections from a Combat Tour of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 159 pp. $12.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a tell-all memoir about life aboard a United States Navy destroyer and the dynamics of the relations between crewmen. Worried about the draft and an infantry assignment, Nardone enlisted in the Navy the day after his eighteenth birthday in 1971. Despite getting his dream sheet fulfilled, he ended up on a ship that went to war.

“Are we men or boys?” Nardone asks several times while thinking through his Vietnam War experience aboard the USS Bordelon (DD881). As part of his treatment for PTSD and guided by “a diary of events,” he writes about his shipboard life in the voice of his younger self in a quest to understand the trauma he still feels nearly fifty years later.

Fear and depression played significant roles in the lives of men on the Bordelon during her round trip from Charleston, South Carolina, to the South China Sea between October 1972 and April 1973. Nardone describes attempts to sabotage the ship as proof that the crew hated the war and wanted no part of it.

Off the coast of Vietnam, the Bordelon primarily provided gunfire support for ground forces and took part in Operation Linebacker. Except for one engagement when he went topside, Nardone spent his combat time below deck setting fuses and moving artillery shells.

His contempt for the war peaked when the Bordelon bombarded and “killed about eighteen [friendly] Marines,” he says. He felt an equally tragic loss when he saw a close friend “cut right in half by the steam” from a ruptured 600-PSI line. In combat, tasks that stressed the ship’s structure made “the old beast feel like she [was] going to disintegrate,” Nardone writes, and the crew twice retreated to Subic Bay for repairs.

Nardone talks about the boredom of sailing long distances and says a few crewmen likened it to a prison sentence. He seemingly holds back nothing in describing stops that developed into orgies of drinking booze, smoking dope, and finding whores or girlfriends in port after port. A confessed self-abuser, Nardone nevertheless questioned his behavior, wondering if he “would still have nightmares and problems if [he] did not get stoned.” Frequently in trouble with the ship’s captain, Nardone once spent three days in the brig on bread and water.

The book’s title is deceptive: “Treason” is not clearly defined and might be viewed from multiple perspectives. Suspected of the most flagrant crimes, the ship’s captain was relieved of his command, confined to quarters, and arrested upon returning to the United States.

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Terry Nardone

You could call this a coming-of-age story except that Nardone was a world-wise young man who exerted significant influence on his shipmates. He makes an airtight case for the strength of friendships and confidences that develop among workers in physically restricted surroundings, such as the hundred men on a destroyer.

Reviewing something like a memoir a week for “Books in Review II” for the past year and a half, I have read few accounts of the Vietnam War written by sailors. Until now, the most memorable book I’ve read about the Navy was Brown Water Runs Red by Bob Andretta, which mainly covers action on South Vietnamese rivers.

Tin Can Treason differs by telling more about people and the ship rather than the action. Yet Terry Nardone clearly spells out the impact that the war had on everyone and everything.

He closes his book with a history of the Bordelon from its 1945 commissioning to its 1977 sinking as a target.

—Henry Zeybel

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Brown Water Runs Red by Bob Andretta

 

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In his 1961 minor classic, Among the Dangs, George P. Elliott tells the story of an anthropologist who becomes a member of a primitive jungle tribe. The anthropologist’s deep immersion in the tribe’s culture ends when he realizes If he “had stayed there much longer I would have reverted until I became one of them until I had lost myself utterly.”

Eight years later, U.S. Navy Lt. Bob Andretta brought much of that fiction to life for himself as an advisor to Vietnamese Coastal Group 14, stationed fifteen miles south of Danang.

In six months with the Group, Andretta was struck by lightning, shredded by shrapnel, blown off a boat, and shot through both legs. After receiving his third set of wounds, he turned down a third Purple Heart and forfeited an opportunity to leave Vietnam early. His desire to help the Vietnamese outweighed all other considerations.

Andretta relates his Vietnam War experiences in Brown Water Runs Red: My Year as an Advisor to the Vietnamese Navy Junk Force (CreateSpace, 428 pp., $20, paper; $8.75 Kindle). Many of the operations he writes about were new to me.

As the leader of three Americans assigned to Group 14, Andretta immersed himself in the war and Vietnamese culture. He participated in practically every search and destroy mission; observed every social custom; doctored children infected with boils and other illnesses; and built a maternity ward and a two-room school for the hamlet of Doi.

Along with South Vietnamese sailors, Andretta worked closely with Ruff-Puffs—Regional Forces (RF) and Provincial Forces (PF). The Navy delivered Ruff-Puffs to coastal or waterway sites where they patrolled on foot. When possible, everyone engaged the enemy with firepower from water and land.

Despite the depth of his involvement, after a few weeks or so, Andretta said, “I felt so isolated; like I had gone to a different world.”

Andretta writes in a straightforward, conversational style that gives the book a humorous tone. He does not hide his feelings, and it is easy to relate to him. His knack for depicting personality traits brings characters alive. His scenes of the aftermath of battle clearly support his transition from a dedicated warrior to a man who abhors war.

He learned by doing. While hospitalized at Danang with an amoebic abscess of the liver, he helped unload CH46 helicopters overflowing with Marines killed and wounded in the A Shau Valley. Even though he had already been seriously wounded, the carnage shocked him.

Shortly after, following another Group 14 “great victory” at “ambush corner” on the Thu Bon River, he saw the napalmed remains of enemy soldiers (men, women, and children) and experienced an epiphany: “Suddenly I hated the country. I hated this place. I hated the war. I hated the people. I wanted out.”

After six months of search and destroy missions, he understood that his men “were just the bait. The artillery and aircraft had done the rest.” Only the body count mattered to his superiors, he decided.

Andretta He accepted a transfer from Group 14 to ragtag Group 13, north of Danang. Group 13 saw little action. Nevertheless, Andretta worked hard to improve a dismal area. From that point, the book resembles an interesting travelogue more than a combat saga.

Ignoring his antiwar sentiments, Andretta connived to participate in a final sweep with a nearby Army unit; the helicopter in which he rode was shot down. He said, “It did not take much reflection to conclude that I was more than just a bit crazy.”

Then he accompanied a SEAL team on a “special patrol” that ended in a shootout. “There was no time to be frightened; only to shoot well,” he said. Outnumbered, the SEALs fled: “That was probably the fastest I have ever run,” Andretta noted.

After he completed his tour, Andretta flew to San Francisco, and encountered a “not very pleasant homecoming, and that’s an understatement” from war protesters.

By remembering his Naval Academy classmates killed in action, Andretta repeatedly conveys the remorse felt by  survivors for friends who died in the war. He recognizes that many survivors never achieve release from their sorrow.

Andretta enhances his narrative by blending an excellent collection of photographs with the text, rather than lumping them together in the middle of the book.

After retiring from the Navy in 1972 due to combat-related disabilities, Andretta became a lawyer and then a judge. He stepped down from the bench in 2007. His wounds still cause him problems that require surgery.

—Henry Zeybel

351 Days in Da Nang by Ray Norton

In 351 Days in Da Nang: Memories of a Navy Investigator (CreateSpace, 116 pp.,  $23.75, paper) Ray Norton tells us he never says he “fought in Viet Nam (because I didn’t). I do say I was stationed in Da Nang or land based with the Navy in Da Nang.” Norton, in fact, served as a security guard and Naval Support Activity (NSA) investigator. “Just because you are in the Navy,” he goes on to say, “does not mean you were on a ship.”

In his book Norton relates his experiences in Viet Nam, using that spelling to hearken back to the days before American intervention. He includes insightful contributions from two life-long friends, Bill Sanderson and Richard Madison. The three served at Da Nang at the same time, from August 1969 to July 1970, working in different fields.

Cheryl Norton also gets space to express her feelings about the year-long separation from husband Ray, during which she gave birth their daughter, Rebecca.

Ray Norton spent  only fourteen months on active duty in the Navy after joining the Reserves, opting to do so rather than being drafted into the Army. His basic training lasted two weeks; his account of it is a masterpiece of dry humor. Norton’s sense of humor unexpectedly pops up in other places in the book, too.

During the first half of his in-country tour, Norton made the best of a boring and life- consuming job as a Tien Sha Peninsula Security Division guard. He finished his tour with detective work as one of six NSA investigators at Camp Tien Sha, adjacent to Da Nang. He reviews a dozen of his most interesting investigations, which provide excellent reading.

At Monkey Mountain. The author is on the left.

The book contains sixty-seven photographs, including two of Military Payment Certificates and one of C-rations, featuring an open can, a plastic spoon, and a P-38. Norton occasionally explains what is common knowledge for old timers, but does not overdo it.

Of course, part of his motivation for writing this memoir was to pass on his experience to his five grandchildren, “who someday may actually read this thing.”

The author’s website is http://raynorton68.wix.com/351days-in-da-nang

—Henry Zeybel

Orange Socks and Other Colorful Tales by J.S. Lamb

Jim Lamb served in Vietnam in the Navy, stationed in Da Nang. He arrived in-country in the Spring of 1970, “after the Tet Offensive, but well before the Fall of Saigon,” as Lamb puts it in his memoir, Orange Socks and Other Colorful Tales: How I Survived in Vietnam and Kept My Sense of Humor (Amazon Digital Services, 77 pp., $4.99, Kindle).

Lamb says that it is a matter of record that he served eleven months in Vietnam during the war, but he really only spent seven months in-country as he was on rotation from his home base in Atsugi, Japan. His squadron was VQ-1, a reconnaissance outfit: “Big planes. Long flights. Secret missions.”

This short book contains many interesting and mild little tales of his naval service. I enjoyed them, especially because the book is well-written and well-edited.

Lamb begins with a chapter called “Welcome to the War,” and then gives us a chapter about a rocket attack on Da Nang, where they were fairly common. He tells us about boot camp at Great Lakes and about his six months at Aviation Electronics School at the Memphis Naval Station. He regales us with stories of his time as a troubleshooter at Corpus Christi, and about guarding the squadron of Stoofs. I won’t explain Stoofs, as Lamb does a better job of that than I could do.

I encourage everyone curious about what it was like to be in the Navy in Da Nang during this period of the Vietnam War to read this little book. Lamb writes elegantly and modestly of his experiences and manages to make the wearing of orange socks a heroic—as well as an amusing—escapade.

The author’s website is www.jslstories.com

—David Willson

Vietnam Body Count by Mushroom Montoya

Montoya served two tours in Vietnam aboard the USS Trippe (DE 1075) and the USS Truxton (DLGN 35). In his creatively written memoir, Vietnam Body Count (CreateSpace, 370 pp., $17, paper), Montoya  tells us that after killing soldiers, women, and children in Vietnam, he circumnavigated the globe.

Montoya’s worked in “R” (Repair) gangs on board his Navy ships. He fixed things such as broken plumbing. His job was to keep a ship from sinking and he also fought shipboard fires. They called him a snipe.

This memoir, which reads very much like a novel, pays homage to Herman Wouk’s classic shipboard novel, The Caine Mutiny. The main plot is the tension between Chief Jaffe and Mushroom Montoya, whom Jaffe decides is a “peacenik” and must be gotten off his ship by any means possible.

Jaffe tries again and again to frame Montoya as a drug user, which he is not. Mushroom is a guy who showed up for this stint in the Navy, his second, with hair down to his shoulders. He burns up his rage at the killing by running around and around the ship’s smokestack screaming. He also meditates, which seems suspicious to the chief. Montoya, who is from California, even has a mantra.

The captain of the ship, as we are alerted by the title, is obsessed with getting a positive body count. He is a Commander, not a Captain, and also is obsessed with making Captain. Unfortunately, his ship has killed friendly villagers and American and South Vietnamese soldiers, which has given the ship a negative body count.

Mushroom Montoya

To get the body count up, the captain decides to bomb a Catholic church during Sunday morning mass. Intel indicates that the VC are hiding ammo under the floor of the church. Montoya and friends decide to alert the priest that the attack is coming so that the church will be empty when the bombs hit. Montoya is told that it would be tantamount to treason to give this information to the priest.

Montoya’s efforts to thwart his captain’s goals are fueled by letters from his friend Kathy, who asks him if he is the sort of guy who took part in the My Lai Massacre and the napalming of Vietnamese children. She says that she hopes “he is not involved in stuff like that.”

Of course, the purpose of war is to kill, so he is involved in stuff like that.  All of us who were there were involved.

Montoya holds forth about the purpose of the Vietnam War. He says we were not there to stop the spread of communism, but “we’re pouring [money] into the pockets of the cigar smoking fatties at Dow Chemical.”   He goes on to say: “We’re killing the Vietnamese so that American business can thrive.”

I was pleased when Jane Fonda was addressed as a subject in this philosophical war memoir. Mushroom says he was proud of her when she was in Hanoi trying to stop the war. Montoya agrees with Fonda, and praises her and her film Barbarella.

Chief Jaffe, on the other hand says, “She’s a fucking traitor. I hope they shoot the bitch.” Montoya replies, “She has big balls.”

For readers who enjoyed The Caine Mutiny and want to read a book similar to it in many ways—but which takes part in the Vietnam War—this is the book for you. I found it a refreshing contrast so many Vietnam War memoirs that laud the American war in Vietnam, but forget about all the innocent villagers who died from being shelled, and the many American soldiers who died as a result of indiscriminate friendly fire.

Blasting a Roman Catholic Church off the face of the earth on Sunday morning was not an effective way to win hearts and minds or defeat the spread of communism.

The author’s website is http://vietnambodycount.blogspot.com

—David Willson